In a maritime line of work, or simply enjoy going out on the water for your leisure? Hopefully you have only smooth sailing ahead, but there is always an element of risk involved when it comes to any nautical activities. When you are out on the open seas, you are surrounded by water, and you are isolated from immediate assistance. That means that if you have an emergency, it is vital that you have a means to get in contact with the outside world.
Who Sees to the Safety of Mariners in US Waters?
If you do find yourself in a nautical emergency, you will be getting into contact with the US Coast Guard, the authority in charge of coordinating Search and Rescue (SAR) for any and all emergencies that happen at sea. The Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary have their own fleet of rescue vessels and aircraft which are used to locate and rescue stranded mariners.
In some cases, it may not be the Coast Guard fleet which is sent to help you. Sometimes, the Coast Guard will coordinate with others nearby to facilitate fast assistance. This is especially common if your situation is not actually classified yet as an emergency. This may also happen if others can reach you sooner.
How Can You Use Your VHF/FM Radio to Call For Help?
If you are in an emergency, or think that one may be developing, how can you get in touch with the Coast Guard? Call out using your VHF/FM radio on Channel 16 or try 2182khz HF/SSB. Both of these frequencies are dedicated for nautical distress calls, and are constantly monitored by the Coast Guard.
What should you say when you signal for help?
The correct thing to say is, “Mayday, mayday, mayday!” They should get immediate attention, after which you can proceed to give the Coast Guard information about your situation.
What if all you have is a CB radio?
The Coast Guard does not monitor transmissions on CB radio, so you really should be equipped with the proper VHF/FM radio. If you are stuck with nothing but a CB radio, your best bet is to try to radio another boat which is also equipped with one. That vessel may be able to call the Coast Guard on your behalf. You can also resort to flares and other visual signals.
What Information Does the Coast Guard Need?
When you get into contact with the Coast Guard, you will need to give them information about what is happening and what kind of assistance you require. Start by giving the exact position, and then explain precisely what is going on, what kind of safety equipment you have do not have at your disposal, the name of your boat, what kind of vessel it is, your registration, and how many people are in danger.
If the Coast Guard has any additional questions for you, they will let you know.
What If The Situation Isn’t an Emergency (Yet)?
Can you call the Coast Guard before you have a full-on emergency?
The Coast Guard’s highest priority is always to rescue vessels that are actually in the midst of a serious emergency, but they will do what they can to help you if you are not already in that position, because they also need to prevent emergencies.
So if you do need help, but you are not actively in the middle of an emergency, you can go ahead and contact the Coast Guard anyway and describe the situation. The Coast Guard will then generally send somebody else to help you. This could be a nearby marina, a commercial airtime firm, local law enforcement, or some other party that is available.
What if nobody is immediately available?
At that point, the Coast Guard will broadcast that you need assistance, and share your location. This is referred to as a Marine Assistance Request Broadcast (MARB).
If somebody answers the MARB, you have the option of accepting their assistance or rejecting it. If you reject it, the Coast Guard can repeat the MARB on your behalf, or can offer you contact information for parties that might be willing to help you. You can then reach out to them individually and explain what you need.
How do you decide whether or not to accept assistance from some party other than the Coast Guard? There are a number of factors to consider, the first being safety. You should make sure that the party that wishes to assist actually has the equipment and personnel to do so. You also should ask what kind of insurance they have, and whether it will be sufficient to cover any sort of damage sustained or injuries inflicted during the rescue operation.
Do You Have to Pay for Help?
In some situations, you may need to pay for assistance. This is likely to be the case if the party that is sent to help you is some kind of commercial business. Maritime professionals have to go out of their way to help you, which would eat into their profits if you did not pay a fee. For this reason, if you agree to their help, you have to pay that fee, even if you change your mind when they are arrive.
So make sure you know exactly how much you will be charged in advance, so you can decide whether or not the offer of help is one that you wish to accept. Also double check to make sure that the party offering to assist has a Coast Guard license if they are charging a fee for towing.
What Happens If Your Vessel is Disabled by Mechanical Failure?
If your boat is not safely operable, you will need to have it towed. It will be brought to the nearest shop where it can be repaired, and/or your home port, depending on the arrangements are able to make. In this sense, it is not much different than towing a car.
Following Up With the Coast Guard While You Wait for Assistance
If you are fortunate, someone will be out to assist you immediately after you call the Coast Guard. If someone other than the Coast Guard does come out to help, and you decide to accept the assistance, you should call the Coast Guard back to let them know that you are being helped.
If nobody shows up right away, you will need to wait. If you are offered assistance, but nobody can get out to you within one hour, you should call back the Coast Guard and ask them to help make other arrangements.
If your situation is not an emergency when you make your initial contact, but a change in the situation may necessitate more immediate action, you should report that change to the Coast Guard straight away. Some examples might be an oncoming storm, a leak developing in your vessel, or a medical crisis ensuing. If your vessel is drifting, you should also routinely call the Coast Guard with updates on your new position.
With a VHF/FM Radio, You Can Stay Safe On the Water
What starts as a seemingly minor mishap can quickly spiral into a life-threatening emergency when you are on the high seas. But if you are equipped with a VHF/FM radio, and you know the proper procedures for obtaining assistance via the Coast Guard, you can protect your vessel, your crew and your life.